Battered Florida Colleges Regroup in Ian’s Wake

After the historic hurricane, institutions in the Sunshine State take stock of the damage on campuses while students deal with record flooding and power outages.

October 3, 2022
University of Central Florida students navigate flooded Orlando streets near campus on an inflatable raft. As Hurricane Ian moved north Friday, Florida institutions took stock of the damage.
(John Raoux/AP Photo)

Colleges and universities in southwestern and central Florida are assessing damage and evaluating reopening plans in the wake of Hurricane Ian.

Some colleges that prepared for severe conditions, including the University of Tampa and the University of South Florida, emerged from the storm with minimal damage and were able to reopen residence halls by Friday morning.

Others were hit harder.

Bethune-Cookman University, a historically Black institution in Daytona Beach, is located in the center of what the Federal Emergency Management Agency designated a “special flood hazard area” of the storm. The university evacuated all students and staff from campus last Monday in anticipation of the dangerous conditions. By Friday afternoon, flooding and severe winds had done significant damage to much of the campus, including historic buildings.

Karen Parks, BCU’s executive director of communications, said Friday that the university has yet to do a full damage assessment, but the campus would remain closed until it does.

“We still feel the storm’s impact,” she wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed. “Once we have determined the storm’s impact, we will work on how and when to bring our students back to campus safely.”

After surveying the damage to campus and the surrounding area, Florida Gulf Coast University canceled classes until Monday, Oct. 10. During the storm, residential and commuter students sought shelter in the university’s Alico Arena, which had been a public shelter during Hurricane Irma in 2017; many remained there through Friday evening.

In a video posted to FGCU’s Facebook page Thursday, university president Michael Martin said a FEMA team would likely assist with poststorm recovery and damage assessment and that students shouldn’t return to dormitories until they are deemed safe to re-enter.

“We have to inspect all of the buildings to make sure they’re safe to return to, including the residence halls … but it’s going to take a while,” Martin said. “Given the amount of damage we’ve had and other problems, we’re going to continue to hunker down here.”

In Orlando, near the University of Central Florida, flooding from the storm surge reached what the local newspaper called “historic” levels. In one apartment complex near the campus, more than 200 residents, the majority of them UCF students, had to be rescued by the National Guard as waters rose; by Friday morning some were wading through waist-high waters with bags of belongings or traversing flooded streets on inflatable rafts. UCF, which initially canceled classes through Friday, extended its suspension of normal operations to Tuesday due to the damage.

Heather Lovett, UCF's director of media relations, said that while the university's campuses didn't sustain any major damage, some apartment complexes and homes off campus where students were living experienced "catastrophic damage," and many lost their belongings and vehicles. She added that staff members are available to help affected students who reach out for assistance.

"Our UCF community is known for our culture of care and compassion, and that spirit will be important as we come together and recover from the impacts of Hurricane Ian," UCF President Alexander Cartwright wrote in an email to the university community on Saturday. "Our hearts are with all the people, including members of our UCF family and those across the state, who have experienced incredible losses due to the storm."

Naim Kapucu, a professor of public administration at UCF and the author of the 2013 study “Disaster Resiliency and Culture of Preparedness for University and College Campuses,” told Inside Higher Ed ahead of the storm that UCF’s robust Emergency Operations Center made the university better prepared than many institutions for disasters like Hurricane Ian.

Those without the same disaster-preparation infrastructure, he said, must rely on community resources in the event of an emergency.

“Not all campuses have capacity or resources to invest in disaster preparedness,” Kapucu said. “Developing partnerships with [the] emergency management community will be essential for campuses if they do not have resources to develop emergency management programs.”

After leaving Florida, Ian turned northward, slightly diminished but still formidable. On Friday the storm lashed the South Carolina coast; by that afternoon, streets near the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston were already flooding. Many colleges and universities in Georgia and the Carolinas had already canceled classes in preparation, including Georgia Southern University, Duke University and the University of South Carolina. But as of Sunday, none had experienced the same level of destruction as Florida’s institutions.

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